blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

EXPLANATION: "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Lines 1-2

The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is composed of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that "so much depends upon" each line of the poem. This is so because the form of the poem is also its meaning. This may seem confusing, but by the end of the poem the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. These lines are also important because they introduce the idea that "so much depends upon" the wheelbarrow.

Lines 3-4

Here the image of the wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word "red" lights up the scene. Notice that the monosyllable words in line 3 elongates the line , putting an unusual pause between the word "wheel" and "barrow." This has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. The reader feels as though he or she were scrutinizing each part of the scene. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely.

Lines 5-6

Again, the monosyllable words elongate the lines with the help of the literary device assonance. Here the word "glazed" evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. This new vision of the image is what Williams is aiming for.

Lines 7-8

The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this "still life" poem. Another color, "white" is used to contrast the earlier "red," and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete. Williams, in dissecting the image of the wheelbarrow, has also transformed the common definition of a poem. With careful word choice, attention to language, and unusual stanza breaks Williams has turned an ordinary sentence into poetry.

Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001. Online Source.

John Hollander

[I]n twentieth-century verse, an enjambment can occur without interest in shock or abruptness as a mimetic effect by itself. . . . A paradigmatic case is from William Carlos Williams in a well-known poem which uses the device almost as if in a manifesto. . . .

The rigorous metrical convention of the poem demands simply three words in the first line of each couplet and a disyllable in the second. But the line termini cut the words "wheelbarrow" and "rainwater" into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun is to be part of a compound, with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbarrow, and in the freshness of light after the rain (it is this kind of light which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things seem to lose their compounded properties. Instead of Milton's shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams "etymologizes" his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one. The formal device is no surface trick.

Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP.

Stanley Archer

Interpretation of "The Red Wheelbarrow" must rely heavily on its visual imagery. There is the vague, casual beginning, "so much depends," then the images of the wheelbarrow and the white chickens. The reader might be justified in considering the poem merely flippant, or perhaps he might think that the poet intends only to entertain through images, that he asks us to imagine, from these juxtaposed images of red and white, a pleasing photograph or painting as we read. Yet the tone does not invite a dismissal of the generalized introduction. We wish to know what these things matter, to whom they matter.

The answer may be suggested by the poem's one metaphor: the wheelbarrow is described as glazed with rainwater—that is, shining, with a suggestion of hardness. The speaker sees the wheelbarrow immediately after the rain, when the bright sun has created the wheelbarrow's shiny surface and has made the chickens immaculately white. In nature, this scene occurs when dark clouds still cover a portion of the sky, often giving an eerie yellow—or blue—green tone to the landscape, a tone seen in the paintings of El Greco. In this short time after the rain has ceased, the chickens have emerged from whatever refuge they sought during the storm. They are reassured that they can begin normal living again and do so calmly (simply "beside" the wheelbarrow).

The metaphor "glazed" captures time in the poem. In a moment, the wheelbarrow will be dry, its sheen gone; yet the hardness suggested by the metaphor is not irrelevant. This moment is like others in life (of the chickens, the speaker, the reader). Periods of danger, terror, stress do not last. The glaze, like the rainbow, signals a return to normality or restoration. The poem creates a memorable picture of this recurring process; reflections upon its meaning may provide the reassurance that makes us more durable.

from "Glazed in Williams' 'The Red Wheelbarrow.'" Concerning Poetry 9:2 (1976).

Barry Ahearn

. . . what are we to make of "The Red Wheelbarrow"? We are back in the neighborhood of Rutherford, or perhaps any rural location. Chickens and wheelbarrows are found in proximity in many parts of the world, though they would not be found in the middle of Greenwich Village. But numbers and the red wheelbarrow do have one thing in common: both are elementary in the sense that civilization depends on them. The wheelbarrow is one of the simplest machines, combining in its form the wheel and the inclined plane, two of the five simple machines known to Archimedes. Just as civilization depends on number, civilization depends on simple machines - both in themselves and in their increasingly complex combinations. "So much depends upon" the wheelbarrow in its service not only through the centuries, but as a form whose components are indispensable to the functioning of a highly industrialized civilization. We can identify two contrasts in the poem. One is between the latest advances in machine technology and the continuing but overlooked importance of elementary machines. The other is between the universal and age-old scene depicted in the poem and the radically new free verse form in which it exists. . . .

In terms of its sounds, quite apart from its images or its vocabulary, Williams intricately tunes the poem. The first and second stanzas are linked by the long "o," in "so" and "barrow" and by the short "uh" in "much," "upon" and "a." "L" and "r" interlace the core stanzas (the second and third); these two sounds, however, are not in the first and fourth stanzas. This simple device distinguishes the framing stanzas from the central stanzas. One result of this distinction is that the central stanzas are mellifluous, the frame stanzas choppy. Then again, however, the honeyed and the choppy are linked in the third and fourth stanzas. They are joined by means of a parallel construction; the long vowels in "glazed with rain" match those in "beside the white," In the last stanza, another loop is closed when the sounds "ch" and "enz" in the last word of the poem echo the sounds in the initial line, "so much depends."

From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright by the Cambridge University Press.

Richard R. Frye

In part, Spring and All manifests certain ontological reassurances. One of these is that the artist's relation to nature is not causal; Williams' poems become sullen in the company of Edmund Husserl's phenomenological applications. Instead, the different realms of nature and art are homologous; the former "possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is opposed to art but apposed to it" (121). Poem interrogates ontology; it begs the question—"is perception reality or figment?":

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Hugh Kenner, in A Homemade World (1975), locates the poem's typographical "suspension system" in an imaginative zone as precarious as art; but Williams may be troping on an adjacent zone (59). Any special space that art inhabits implies another to which it is apposed; Williams, adducing from the synthetic cubists independent but homologous structures for nature and art, early in the twenties began calling that space the imagination:

Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it—It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but— (SAA 149-50)

One point that emerges from poem XXII is that there is a world to begin with for art to affirm; not that Williams possesses categorizations, etc. of a particular kind unnecessary for the poem to verbalize (Kenner's remark: "he has cunningly not said what depends"), but that "out there" are chickens, rainwater, and wheelbarrows to evoke; they aren't some purely solipsistic image. The ontological status of the image depends upon whether or not the poem constitutes a psychophysical event; for only then is it useful both as a psychological correlative and as a way of understanding human experience.

from "Seeing the Signs: Objectivist Premonitions in Williams' Spring and All." Sagetrieb 8.3

Henry M. Sayre

So much depends upon the form into which Williams molds his material, not the material itself. . . .

From this point of view, the material which composes Williams's poem, material chosen from Williams's position as artist, begins to take on the aura of Marcel Duchamp's famous readymades. Duchamp had written that the aesthetic dimension of his urinal, Fountain, which he had purchased in a plumbing store and submitted to the 1917 New York Independents Exhibition, rested in the fact that he had taken "an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object." Just as Duchamp revitalizes our aesthetic sense by placing a urinal in the context of art, Williams places his material in an equally strange environment--the poem--and the wheelbarrow's accidental but very material presence in this new context invests it with a new dignity. It is crucial that Williams's material is banal, trivial: by placing this material in the poem, Williams underscores the distance the material has traveled, and the poem defines a radical split between the world of art and the world of barnyards, between a world which crystallizes the imagination and a world which is a mere exposition of the facts.

From The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1983 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Hugh Kenner

Not what the poets says, insisted Williams; what he makes; and if ever we seem to catch him saying ("So much depends upon. . ."), well, he has cunningly not said what depends. He has levered that red wheelbarrow into a special zone of attention by sheer torque of insistence.

Attention first encounters the word "upon," sitting all alone as though to remind us that "depends upon," come to think of it, is a rather queer phrase. Instead of tracing, as usage normally does, the contour of a forgotten Latin root, "depends upon" ignores the etymology of "depend" (de + pendere = to hang from). In the substantial world "upon" goes nicely with "wheelbarrow": so much, as it were, piled upon. In the idiomatic world, inexplicably, "upon" goes with "depends." In the poem, since we're paying unaccustomed attention, these two worlds are sutured, and "depends" lends its physical force, an incumbency as though felt by the muscles, to what must be a psychic depending. . . .

[A]fter "upon," there's what looks like a stanza break. What are these stanzas? Small change symmetrically counted, always three words and then one word, the one word, morover, always of two syllables, but the three-word line having four syllables the first time and the last, but only three syllables on its two middle occurrences. These are stanzas you can't quite hear, especially as one very simple sentence runs through all four of them. They are stanzas to see, and the sight of them, as so often in Williams, inflects the speaking voice, the listening ear, with obligations difficult to specify. "Upon," "barrow," "water," "chickens," these words we puncuate with as it were a contraction of the shoulders, by way of doing the stanzas' presence some justice. And as we give "barrow" and "water" the emphasis their isolation requests, two other words, "wheel" and "rain," isolate likewise. . . .

"Wheelbarrow" and "rainwater," dissociated into their molecules, seem nearly kennings: not adjective plus noun but yoked nouns, as though new-linked. And "red" goes with "white," in a simple bright scheme, and "chickens' with "barrow" for an ideogram of the barnyard, comporting with the simplicities of rain; and the rain glazes a painted surface but (we are left to imagine) does not glaze the chickens, merely soaks them if they are chickens enough to stand in it. (And yet they need it, and may not be wise enough to know how much depends, for them, on the rain.) So much depends on all that pastoral order: food, and the opportunity to touch actualities (while trundling a wheelbarrow), and the Sabine diastole to counter the urban systole.

Are these reflections penumbral to the poem? Probably. Probably even external to it. This poem tends to ignore what it doesn't state. But let them serve to remind us that a farmer would know every one of the words in this little poem, but would be incapable of framing the poem, or even uttering its sentence. We need to be at a picturesque distance from such elements to think of how much depends (for us) on them.

"Mobile-like arrangement," said Wallace Stevens. Yes. The lines, the words, dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system. This was one thing Williams meant by "making," not "saying." Yet you do say, you do go through the motions of saying. But art lifts the saying out of the zone of things said. For try an experiment. Try to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said:

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.

Try it over, in any voice you like: it is impossible. It could nonly be the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown's barnyard. And to go on with the dialogue? To whom might the sentence be spoken, for what purpose? Why, to elicit agreement, and a silent compliment for the speaker's "sensitivity." Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you'd wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings.

That zone is what Williams in the 1920's started calling "the Imagination."

From A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. Copyright 1975 by Hugh Kenner

Charles Altieri

The work of edge-to-edge contact here does not need commentary; the effects of such connectives do. Why begin with that abstracting opening clause, if one is committed to the dominant force of the particular images? And why use a word count, rather than a syllable count, as one's organizing pattern? What can possibly be "realized" by drawing such parallels between word positions? Clearly, the sentence is once again the primary model of agency. But in "Flowers by the Sea," the agency was a fairly simple one. The sentence defined and complemented oppositions organized by our investments in seeing, so that the poem exercised a significant force, simply as visual rendering. Here, despite the confident realism attributed to it by critics, the visual rendering flirts with bathos. The picture as image is no more compelling a version of an actual scene than the abstracted vision Braque gives of the village at Estaque. Our interest must focus on the pronounced formal qualities. There resides our only route to substantial extraformal content. For example, one could concentrate on the way in which this structure calls attention to the material quality of these isolated words, as if, in glazing them, their power to make direct significations could be made manifest. But that is still to leave words in search of agency. For the poem to have much depth—to not be only about the lack of depth—we must define how the semantic force of that opening clause brings those material qualities to life and connects them to the poem's obvious concern for the nature of reference. We must show what can be realized through this treatment of dependency as a poetic site.

Ten years later, Williams made explicit the implications of that site: "This is, after an, the substance, therefore the explanation, of my poems and my life in which there exists (instead of you exist)" ("A Novelette and Other Prose," in Imaginations 302). Dependency, in other words, becomes a means of exploring ways in which subjectivity is subordinate to other, more inclusive and transpersonal models of intentionality. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow, because so much depends on understanding what is at stake in the dual attributes of that "so much depends"; the mind's manifestation of an abiding principle of care, inherent in this "there is," and the mind's becoming itself virtually tactile, in its efforts to compose the world so that those cares can reside in actual phenomena.

I take the formal equivalent of this care to be the force of predication set in motion by the structural pattern of dividing the poem into four equal compositional units, with only one verb. The position of the verb is occupied, in the succeeding stanzas, by three adjectival functions, each literally depending, for its complete grammatical and semantic functioning, on the single words that complete the stanza. The effect is to have the completion of meaning constantly delayed, and to make the delay a means of slowing us down or defamiliarizing the process of conferring meanings, so that we are led to recognize the miraculous quality of words and cares eventually taking hold.

As we read, the mind is made to hover over details, until its waiting is rewarded—not only within the stanza, but also as each independent stanza emerges to fill out this waiting and to move us beyond details to a complex sense of a total life contained in these objects. How resonant the word "depends" becomes, when we recall its etymological meanings of "hanging from" or "hanging over." The mind acts, not by insisting on its own separateness, but by fully being "there": by dwelling on, depending on, the objects that depend on it. And words themselves take on that same quality, because each part of speech reveals its capacity to transfer force. Each first line ends in what could be a noun—a substance allowing rest in the flow of meaning—but that turns out to function adjectivally. As adjectives, the words define aspects of an intending mind—Locke's secondary qualities, perhaps—seeking a substance in which to inhere. But the words' nominal qualities do not disappear. Their incompleteness, and their shared position with the verb "depends," combine to create an effect of substance in action. In effect, concrete qualities seem verbal—seem capable, as Fenollosa insisted, of transferring force from object to object and from the mind's intentions to concrete events.

We are starting to recognize the justice of that initial abstract expression of emotion, "so much depends / upon." Because "so much" has no clear antecedent, the phrase itself expresses a sense of emotional possibilities, to be filled out and clarified only when the mind completes its action and finds a place. Ultimately, so much depends upon our recognizing the complex ways in which we depend on the scene (as the farmer depends on these specific objects for his sustenance). Moreover, the scene itself turns back to give concrete aspects to this initial abstraction—both by giving it a local habitation and, perhaps more important, by creating a set of structural parallels that invites us to feel the mind itself as a palpable, tactile entity—as the verbal equivalent to the containing knowledge in Braque's painting. First, the etymology of the word "depends" reminds us of the fact, so dear to objectivist poets, that most of our words for mind's activity depend upon metaphors that initially had concrete meanings. The structural parallels also intensify this sense of the mind's dependence as a palpable dimension of the scene. The word "upon," for example, occupies a position later occupied by a series of nouns, and it completes its verb, just as the nouns complete their intending adjectives. "Upon," then, approaches a literal state of being; it is no longer merely an abstract connective, but a physical presence of consciousness in action. Rather than presenting an icon that we take as a perceptual reality, Williams makes the iconic force of art testimony for the most abstract, yet most intimate of psychological energies: those that define the very form of intentionality.

We see this intentionality most clearly in the way that the three concrete stanzas enact the process of dependence by continually looking back to that initial opening that invests the scene with its governing verb and allows other elements to assume predicative force. By extending structural parallels into epistemological ones, mental acts become almost as palpable as physical objects. This palpable force actually thickens our sense of the interrelations between time and space. On the one hand, the reader's engagement in their dependency is profoundly temporal. This assertion about dependency erupts suddenly, forcing us, in effect, to leap a resisting frontal plane before we get to the object, itself slowly unfolding in time and as space. That leap keeps the object dependent on us, and keeps us watching the powers of our own connecting energies as they unfold. We move from the adjective states "red" and "wheel" to a simple noun, to a qualifier of that noun (with its dual roles of adjective and noun), to an adverbial modifier of place—all posed with a strange testing of language's ability to hold the real, so that we are tempted to think of the poem as the literal exploration of what language can trust, as if language were testing its predicate categories. Yet no poem in English is more spatial and timeless. On the mimetic level, these objects seem to have no history, to have always been there, and to represent a form of rural life whose essential habits, and dependence on natural processes, have never really changed. On the testimonial level, all of this motion is so under the control of pattern, and so abstracted to pure function, that it establishes another dimension, in which the various conditions making for objectivity contain and sustain the temporal features of intentional desire.

"Depends," therefore, has two temporal senses that complement its two meanings: One sense refers to the physical activity of depending on movement to complete the mind's intentions, and the other invokes an abstract meaning that suggests a total enduring relationship of mutual supports. One temporal sense refers to an immediate present that keeps changing; the other, Suzanne Langer has called an "eternal present" that we see in mathematical formulas such as "two plus two equals four" or "x is a function of y and depends on it." Taken together, these two senses reinforce Williams's idealization of the artist as "composing-antagonist" (Imaginations 99), who can disclose the real without either aestheticizing it or making violent impositions upon it. All of the energy leads back to this sense of sustaining interrelationships. This "eternal present" is not transcendental. It is simply our sense of visibility, made self-reflexively "ours" by the palpable form that works of art afford the mind. Because the acts of mind can be rooted in an objective world, there need be no idealist dialectic to reunite the poles of presentation and disclosure: Objects endure, and thus acts of mind that intensify them, and are intensified in turn, are infinitely repeatable. And, as Nietzsche knew, there is no greater test of will, of the spirit's capacity to align itself with necessities it cannot control, than this sense of infinite repetition. Because art can realize levels of experience concrete enough to be this abstract, Williams can sustain what amounts to a religious appropriation of Cezanne's aesthetics: "A life that is here and now is timeless. That is the universal I am seeking: to embody that in a work of art, a new world that is always real" (Selected Essays 196).

from Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge UP.

Julio Marzán

Williams' use of imaginary translation, both into visual imagery and from Spanish, appears to account for his creation of "The Red Wheelbarrow" (CPI 224). Originally published in Spring and All (1925), this poem shares images with "Brilliant Sad Sun," a poem that Williams placed among "Collected Poems 1954" in The Collected Earlier Poems, but that had actually appeared in The Dial in 1927 (CPI 515) and that whose writing, from the reasoning to follow, actually predates "The Red Wheelbarrow." As with Williams' other early poems, "Brilliant Sad Sun" also contains

some painterly techniques, but nothing quite like those in "The Red Wheelbarrow" (the title that by convention has been given to this originally untitled poem). In fact, although published first, "The Red Wheelbarrow" appears to be the result of an experiment in imaginary translation that Williams performed on "Brilliant Sad Sun," translating it from a narrating representational painting to an abstract minimalist one.

"Brilliant Sad Sun" opens with a visual representation of the signs around an outdoor eatery:


Spaghetti                             Oysters
a Specialty                           Clams

(CPI 269)

These contrast with Elena's nostalgic chatter that prompts her brilliant sad son to ask "what good" is her escaping from sharply defined reality by speaking "thoughts / romantic but true. . . . " For her benefit, he projects a visual image of her in the third person so she may appreciate its concreteness: "Look! / from a glass pitcher she serves / clear water to the white chickens," adding "What are your memories / beside that purity?" But his mother, the empty pitcher "dangling / from her grip," simply continues talking about old memories she has kept alive for years, set in France and Puerto Rico:

her coarse voice croaks

And Patti, on her first concert tour
sang at your house in Mayaguez
and your brother was there

(CPI 270)

So much of what was important to Williams depended on Elena, and she poured out her vitality in nostalgia to escape his reality as an American and an artist. But Bill accepts her doing this as part of a tragic natural order, she being Latin and thus romantic by nature. Her pouring water to the chickens imparts a measure of life to him by producing sadness, which yields the fruit of another regeneration, the poem itself. Thus the poem celebrates the pathetic fallacy: around them is "Spring!" and from his sadness emerges the brilliant sun/son in the form of Kore.

To arrive at "The Red Wheelbarrow," Williams translated the relationship between Elena, the poet, and her physical surroundings into visual images. The soul-dead Elena, who held in her hand the empty pitcher from which she had poured out the regenerative vitality of water, is compressed into the idea of something on which so much pende ("hangs"). The original "dangling," a (suspected) Nordic word that means "hang from," was thus translated into the parallel Latinate "depends." The "Spring!" around them and the sustaining image "she serves / clear water" in "Brilliant Sad Sun" are condensed into "rainwater," and this image is also reinforced by the atmosphere suggested by white chickens walking out in the rain. A melting of the "glass pitcher" into "glazed with rain / water" conserves the shining quality of the original "pitcher." Eliminated is the circular interaction of metaphors in the first poem: spring, restaurant, winter done to a turn, water, chickens, sadness, regeneration, spring. The new images, no longer metaphors, are the objects that the words paint in the imagination as well as the words themselves: cubist-style, the words "wheel/barrow" and "rain/water" are artificially broken, emphasizing the plasticity of the words, making us conscious of them as visual objects.

But from what element in "Brilliant Sad Sun" did Williams get the "red wheelbarrow"? From an imaginary translation from the Spanish. In Spanish, to know things by heart or to do something by rote can be described by the phrase de carretilla: hacer de carretilla or saber de carretilla. The image evokes carrying around the knowledge using a small cart. Colloquially, one can refer to someone's habitually prattling on about some- thing as bringing back one's carretilla. And carretilla also literally denotes "wheelbarrow." On that afternoon, Rose was prattling nostalgically de carretilla, so the carretilla was Rose's, la carretilla de Rosa, which homonymously translated also says "the red wheelbarrow."

In "The Red Wheelbarrow," therefore, the central image is still a vessel bearing water, spring rainwater that falls on an outdoor setting similar to the suggested one in "Brilliant Sad Sun," with white chickens. But whereas in the first poem the narrative explains the network of relationships between metaphors, in the second poem the centrality of that semantic chain gives way to a purity of forms and colors. In sharp contrast to the cool, white, softly round chickens, the red wheelbarrow is flaming and angular. By virtue of being cooled and glazed by rainwater, however, it simultaneously belongs beside them. The romanticizing Elena in "Brilliant Sad Sun" was the opposite of the concreteness of the chickens, and yet each was doing what came naturally: "Look! / from a glass pitcher she serves / clear water to the white chickens." But once the imaginary translation is performed, the language of the new poem produces a distinct poem that is a new "conversation by design," one whose painted images and arrangement of words broaden the implications of that on which "So much depends."

Williams, who habitually covers his sources ("But they have no access to my sources" [CPI 67]), of course, nowhere explicitly attests to his performing this translation. And one can argue that "The Red Wheelbarrow" came to Williams not derived directly from "Brilliant Sad Sun" but by the original experience that remained with him so vividly that over time it inspired separate poems with the same imagery. But that argument would leave the poem hollow of important semantic possibilities, flattening the dimensions of the "red wheelbarrow" while disregarding parallel instances of the kind of imaginary translation that produced that image. Such a parallel is found in Williams' preface to the works of Fernando Puma:

But a vessel to hold water is an objet d'art no matter how crazily you treat it. Whatever you do to it [sic] still remains an "object."

Merely invoking the great Picasso sufficed to make a case for this kind of translation. But, as observed earlier, in defending Picasso's quitting painting to capture the same objet d'art in ceramics, Williams was actually defending the acts of imaginary translation that he himself had performed. A closer look at his language in his essay reinforces this contention. His original subject had been Picasso's transition from painting to ceramics. The "vessel to hold water" was Williams' imaginary translation of an as yet unstated antecedent, the synecdochic olla ("pot") image that represents Picasso's exploration of "ceramics." But it is Williams who had introduced the pot image and limited its function to that of a vessel intended to hold water. His declaration on how crazily one can treat an object of art is really a non sequitur. One infers from this illogic that Picasso was merely a vehicle that Williams was using to point to his own techniques, that the example foremost in Williams' mind was a vessel that holds water and which, like the glass pitcher and the rain-glazed wheelbarrow, he did treat crazily.

That the imagination can perform the kind of translation that produced the "red wheelbarrow" from carretilla de Rosa is what makes poetry or art possible. In the picture painted by the poem we witness the power of the imagination at work, understanding by seeing, rather than being told—an example of the purity that the brilliant sad son had attempted to tell Elena to see. This interpretation of Williams' poem as a paradigm, of course, precedes and is independent of our knowing how the poem came to be. But the evolution of its invention does reaffirm the poem's being a paradigm of the writing of poems, and gives another reason why "so much depends" on a red wheelbarrow.

Eliminate the previously discussed leap of the imagination that produced the "red wheel / barrow" image and the poem suddenly loses a power it had gained as paradigm, as well as its signature of Williams' style, the balance of the autobiographical and the aesthetically universal: the "red wheel / barrow" was a tribute to his bloodline twice, first in cryptically evoking Elena on whom so much of his life depended, and ultimately in celebrating his artistic lineage. For the performance of imaginary translation that produced the image was also an application of conceptismo, specifically of the lessons that came to him through a major tributary, from whom he discovered early on how wild comparisons in the imagination can bring tremendous inventiveness to the poem on the page. That mentor was Luis de Gongora, cubism's prime literary predecessor and one of several Spanish writers through whom Williams claimed Elena's literary bloodline.

from The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams. Copyright © 1994 by The University of Texas Press.

Peter Baker

If one were to leave the importance of perception unnoticed, one would inevitably be baffled by some of Williams' more famous poems. One of his most famous and most misunderstood is numbered simply XXII in Spring and All (p. 138): . . . So much does this poem center on the perceptive faculty that one critic has recently called it a poem by someone afraid of his own thoughts. Yet as Robert Pinsky has shown for "The Term" and Albert Cook for "The Poor," quite a bit of intellectual power can be brought to bear on the detail, the ideas and the structural links between the two in Williams' poetry. In this poem a great deal depends on "depends"—one way of reading it is that everything "hangs" on the image presented as everything in the structure of the poem seems to hang on this word and its related preposition. On a thematic level, Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one's experience. One reason this poem has been ridiculed as well as revered is its apparent insignificance in the face of such a claim. Yet Williams is highly serious. As he says in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (PB, pp. 161-2):

                                It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                yet men die miserably every day
                                for lack
of what is found there.

This is one of his more prose-like statements of what he feels as his calling, what drives the poet.

from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Williams always proposed a poetry based on assimilation rather than prohibition, which makes of the future a priority and seeks to create "a new form of poetic composition, a form for the future’—a poetry full of the freshness, the hum and buzz of everyday life in which truly ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens’.

From Bloom, Clive and Brian Docherty (eds.) American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. © The Editorial Board, Lumiere (Co-operative Press) Ltd., 1995.

Kenneth Lincoln

Apart from Pound’s thunder abroad, so much depends on what back home, a red wheelbarrow? For a moment, peer through a knothole into Williams’s smallest poem, his most well-known ‘local assertion," broken off and loosened, as microcosmic emblem of the local American lyric: scan a sixteen-word poem stripped of filigree, unadorned, even anti-formalized. From the 1913 Armory Show on, Williams, Pound, Hartley, Demuth, Moore, and all the Others were "streaming through" a break in the old conventions: "—the poetic line, the way the image was to be on the page was our immediate concern."

Surely there’s more here than meets the eye. The ear, perhaps, picks up a stuttering iambic step, say, of a man (paternally English) trundling something across the barnyard (chicken manure?). But where, in this uncharted farmland, does the foot fall? The metric stress is ambiguously pitched: "so much" might make light of how much, and "so much" bears a trochaic heave that could overload the slight line. Yet together, iamb tilting against trochee, improvisationally and indeterminately metric, the opening catches us in the pitch of needing to know, and unknowing . "There’s a certain Slant of Light," Dickinson demurred with an anapest, and Frost churned the slurred line with trochees, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." This is measure freed to informal responsibilities of speech, poetry metrically loosened, American-formed.

Classically Western, this rolling sense of beginnings expresses the personal urgency, the rocking weight-in-motion, of not knowing where to put the "foot" as we shoulder the load in a new land. Thus, we must step (speak, think) carefully ... upon the second line. This preposition is a single verse unit, and as such, it’s the syntactic wheel of the machine, as it were—the rolling fulcrum of the line above it. By now we begin to see the game: a parodically imitative "wheel / barrow" couplet, rolling along, which leads into a second stanzaic movement, minimally precise, "a red wheel" (one syllable shorter than its corresponding tray of a line above). Barrow itself, nub of the poem, evolves from Old English bearwe, cognate with bear. This third line is composed of two spondees enjambed toward an inverted foot, a trochaic "barrow," which serves as the wheeling reverse pivot, indeed, of the second line (as with Pound’s "Petals"). And still it’s one continuous motion ("an unimpeded thrust," Williams wrote a friend in 1921, "right through a poem from the beginning to the end"). The poem trundles a wheel barrow along freshly, as barnyard metaphor of America (working man’s humor), to a trochaic "glazed," surreally highlighted by its own acoustics. Then, leaning iambically further, the line "with rain" tumbles toward a trochee, "water," into the third microcosmic couplet. All this to be completed in four syllables, trailing yet a third preposition, "beside," now normatively iambic, as a near rhyme within the line, "the white," drops with delicate trochaic twist to "chickens."

No title, without punctuation, minimal diction, tilling rhythm, and modestly internal rhyme (depends/upon, wheel/barrow, beside/white/chickens): it’s not much of a poem, an English formalist might object. What makes it tick? What catches in the eye, cocks the ear? Three modest prepositions—upon, with, beside--place these barnyard minims in visual apposition, or a kind of contingent spatial rhyme, as in Alexander Calder’s counter-gravity-balancing mobiles. Syllable to syllable the ear rolls (wheels) iamb upon trochee, the eye composes (glazes) red with white, as the mind centers (depends) on a barrow beside the chickens. It’s elemental—a figure / ground design scanned in twenty-two slim syllables. And perhaps it adds up to no more than a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves, ideas in action, here the basics of a rudimentary machine (rediscovering the New World wheel, the rolling fulcrum of Western-moving-man). Work-ethic poetics, workman’s details, working-class humor. This artist gets the job done—scoops out the coop, fertilizes the turned ground, cleans the Augean stables as wry Hercules in minuscule. Williams’s first book of poems ("bad Keats, nothing else—oh well, bad Whitman too") was printed at his own expense in 1909 and sold four copies at the local stationery. A retired printer stored the remaining hundred copies on a rafter under the eaves of his old chicken coop, where they were accidentally burned ten years later. On through the red wheel barrow, Williams "scribbled" another fifty years, whether anyone noticed or not.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Ó 1999 by the Regents of the University of California.

Return to William Carlos Williams